Russian Hill, a residential neighborhood with pockets of restaurants and shops, feels a bit more visitor-friendly than its more formal neighbor, Nob Hill. The views are also just as dazzling.
The neighborhood got its name when gold rushers found seven Cyrillic-inscribed gravestones at the top of the hill. Consensus on the identity of the Russian men buried there -- they were reputed to be anything from sailors to fur trappers -- was never reached, the gravestones disappeared in the late 1800s and the Russian influence has long since dissipated.
Charming restaurants and small businesses cluster on leafy Hyde Street between Jackson and Union Streets, and Polk Street is crowded with unusual boutiques, antique shops, trendy restaurants and night spots. A mini French quarter has sprung up around Polk and Green, where you'll find a great bistro, a traditional café-boulangerie, a French antiques store, and several French-influenced gift and home décor shops.
The center of Russian Hill is accessible by the Hyde-Powell cable car and two Muni buses, the 41 (weekday rush hour only) and the 45. The 19 runs along Polk Street, stopping frequently from Ghirardelli Square to the Tenderloin.
Lombard Street: Known as "the world's crookedest street," Lombard winds past ornate houses (one of which was home to the San Francisco edition of "The Real World") and lush, flowering bushes. Between Hyde and Leavenworth streets.
Parks, Gardens and Great Views: Although the bursting hydrangeas along Lombard Street are pretty, there are more leisurely places to enjoy the outdoors. Alice Marble Park, at the corner of Greenwich and Larkin streets, is a block away and offers a stunning view of the neighborhood's historical houses. Ina Coolbrith Park (at the intersection of Taylor and Vallejo streets) has steep steps lined with thick trees and a patch of grass where locals sunbathe (fog permitting) and read. With its sweeping views of the Bay, North Beach, the Bay Bridge and the lower Financial District, it's also a favorite, lesser-known spot to watch fireworks. Adjacent to the park are the Vallejo Ramps -- steep, zigzagging steps -- between Jones and Taylor streets. From there (or anywhere at the top of the hill), the view of the Bay and Alcatraz is stunning. Over at Macondray Lane (known to Armistead Maupin fans as Barbary Lane), get a behind-the-scenes look at life in the neighborhood as you go from busy Union Street to hidden urban gardens.
San Francisco Art Institute: The architects behind San Francisco's City Hall designed this Spanish-style structure, complete with bell tower, in the 1920s. Stop in to view the school's imposing and magnificent Diego Rivera mural, or to take in a student exhibit or artist lecture. The school café is open to the public and offers comforting staples like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, burgers and just-baked cookies, accompanied by a splendid view of the Bay. 800 Chestnut St., (415) 771-7020. (Web site)
The Bagelry: Line up with the masses for fresh-baked bagels, a variety of cream cheeses and toppings like lox and tomatoes. Mainly a takeout place, but there are a few tables outside. 2139 Polk St., (415) 441-3003.
Frascati: Friendly service and lots of regular customers give this rustic restaurant the welcoming atmosphere of a true neighborhood favorite. Frascati features pan-European fare in a quirky, intimate setting that includes an open kitchen, a mezzanine balcony overlooking the main dining room, and several secluded nooks that fit just a table or two. Menu items might include paella, cassoulet or coq au vin, and stand-out desserts have included the black-and-white bread pudding and a light pumpkin cheesecake. 1901 Hyde St., (415) 928-1406. (Chronicle Review)
Harris': In these days of soy chai lattes and tofu spring rolls, stuffing yourself on an oversized cut of beef has become highly unorthodox. Thankfully, Harris' hasn't pandered to the Bay Area's changing diet, instead opting to perfect what they do best -- cook meat. They serve unfussy standards like porterhouse, as well as dressed-up classics like filet mignon topped with grilled foie gras. 2100 Van Ness Ave., (415) 673-1888. (Chronicle Review/Web site)
Hyde Street Bistro: The husband-and-wife team that runs this inviting little bistro had a vision of presenting simple food in an unpretentious setting. Someday the American palate may consider sautéed escargot with gnocchi a simple meal, but until then the restaurant will have to content itself with a reputation for its intriguing French fare and cozy atmosphere. 1521 Hyde St., (415) 292-4415. (Chronicle Review)
La Folie: One of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco has a whimsical interior -- clouds on the ceiling, hand-painted signs and closely set tables. The menu is traditional French, with California touches. The wine list focuses on California and French vintages. 2316 Polk St., (415) 776-5577. (Chronicle Review)
Lemongrass: Good value Thai food in a cozy atmosphere. The cooks pay special attention to freshness and spice; the green curry (with seafood, vegetables or chicken) and pad thai are especially good. 2348 Polk St., (415) 929-1183. (Chronicle Review)
T2J: A green awning with the name of the restaurant points the way into a room with glass-topped tables and wall hangings. Expect well-spiced dishes with good levels of heat, as in kaneg ped, a coconut milk red curry with boneless roast duck, tomatoes and basil. There are rice and noodle dishes, and a decent version of pad Thai. On the way out, don't miss the curio cabinet filled with curious items for sale, including hand-knitted caps. (-SF Chronicle) 2065 Polk St. (at Broadway); (415) 771-5544. (Chronicle Review)
Nick's Crispy Tacos: This club by night, taqueria by day, dishes out flavors from Baja daily. Chomp down on crispy battered fish tacos as you dine under crystal chandeliers and images of Sponge Bob. Also excellent are the tacos done "Nick's way." Carnitas, carne asada, or chicken are stuffed into a soft corn tortilla that is wrapped around a deep-fried one and overflows with guacamole, cheese and salsa fresca. Cash only. (--SF Chronicle) 1500 Broadway (at Polk Street); (415) 409-8226. (Bargain Bites 2004)
Pesce: Visit this fish restaurant for simple seafood dishes with an Italian accent. The dark wood décor and tile floors give the place a clean, classic ambiance. 2227 Polk St., (415) 928-8025. (Chronicle Review)
Polkers: Get in line with the rest of the neighborhood on Saturday and Sunday mornings for overflowing skillets and scrambles. The all-American menu switches gears to burgers and deluxe salads for lunch and dinner. 2226 Polk St., (415) 885-1000.
Sushi Groove: The best sushi choice in the neighborhood has a trendy, posh interior and devastatingly gorgeous sake cocktails. Wait for your table at Bacchus Wine and Sake Bar next door. 1916 Hyde St., (415) 440-1905. (Chronicle Review)
Swenson's: This ice cream shop has been around for generations, super-fresh cones and overpacked pints to crowds on sunny days (and even some cold, foggy ones). Corner of Union and Hyde streets, (415) 775-6818.
Za Pizza: Too-large-to-hold gourmet pizza slices. Eat at the large bar or at one of the few small tables, or take it home. 1919 Hyde St., (415) 771-3100.
Zarzuela: There's usually a line outside this Spanish restaurant, and no wonder. The casual atmosphere, pitchers of sangria and tapas menu practically ensure a festive dinner. Highlights include the paella, garlic shrimp, mushrooms and fried bananas with black bean sauce. 2000 Hyde St., (415) 346-0800. (Chronicle Review)
2211 Club: If you walk by too quickly, you're likely to miss the place. Inside the narrow, hidden storefront is a long bar of locals, a small table in the back and ... well, that's about it. An alternative to the Royal Oak's pickup scene next door. 2211 Polk St., (415) 434-1220.
Bacchus Wine & Sake Bar: What started out three years ago as an overflow bar for the always-packed Sushi Groove restaurant has become its own debonair destination. Grab a seat on one of eight bar stools or plop down on one of the leather love seats in the storefront window and groove to Euro-style lounge music while mingling with young neighborhood hipsters. The eclectic 50-bottle wine list focuses on small wineries from around the world -- there's even a wine from Lebanon -- and the bar offers 13 wines by the glass or half-glass. Want some sushi to go with that? Just give the bartender your order and pick up the goods a few doors down. (--Tina Caputo, special to SF Chronicle) 1954 Hyde St. (near Union Street), (415) 928-2633.
The Buccaneer: An unpretentious bar with great happy-hour specials and a free pool table. 2155 Polk St., (415) 673-8023.
Green's Sport Bar: If there is an important sporting event on, even at 9 am, Green's will be open for business. March Madness really packs them in with as many as 10 simultaneous games, and on an off day, it's one of the few bars in the area where you're likely to find a seat. 2239 Polk St., (415) 775-4287.
The Royal Oak: With its plush sofas, Tiffany-style lamps and jumble of potted plants, this popular bar is a relaxed, old-timey saloon by day. After dark, however, it drops its sleepy demeanor and is transformed into a packed singles scene. 2201 Polk St., (415) 928-2303.
Tonic: In the space that once housed a working-class neighborhood bar is now Tonic, home to black clothes and pink cocktails. The interior is plush, with dark blue velvet couches and barstools, architectural light fixtures and floating candles on every table. Another plus is the jukebox, which specializes in alternative British bands such as Hooverphonic, the Smiths and Pulp. 2360 Polk St., (415) 771-5535.